Friday, September 25, 2009

Caution -- Low Clearance Ahead

We are at the Seneca Niagara Casino Hotel in Niagara Falls, New York (map). The casino allows RV parking in an oversize vehicle lot, used mainly by tour buses, at the northeast corner of the property. There are at least five restaurants on the property, all priced commensurate with the tourist-trap nature of the town, and we had a pleasant and casual dinner at the Three Sisters, what amounts to the coffee shop of the complex.

We had quite the exciting day yesterday -- more so than we'd like. The first half of the drive from Erie was actually quite lovely; we opted to take Pennsylvania 5 which runs closer to the lake than US-20, and afforded us the occasional view of the lake. The lakefront was much less developed than we had imagined, and much of the drive was quite rural, although we did have to zig-zag through a couple of towns. PA-5 is a designated truck route, so we were quite comfortable just following the signs.

When we crossed the state line, the road became New York 5, which is not a designated truck route, so we kept a close eye out for low weight limits or overhead clearances, although we certainly shared the road with quite a number of trucks, bypassing the tolls on the NY Thruway, no doubt. In Silver Creek, NY-5 and US-20 came together as one road, which took us over Cataraugus Creek on a single bridge and onto the Seneca reservation, where the Native American tax exemption meant cheap diesel -- we put in 120 gallons at an incredible $2.379 a gallon -- a good 40 cents less than stations off the reservation.

Just north of the creek, US-20 and NY-5 again diverge, and our own sensibilities told us to stay lake-side, and even the GPS agreed this time, as the route is shorter to the falls that way. We did not get far -- almost immediately after making the turn, a sign warned of 12'6" clearance in ¼ mile (we are 13' tall), and I could see the obstruction -- a rail bridge. Fortunately, it was fairly easy at that spot to make a right and head back to US-20.

Thinking that, surely, at least one of the roads connecting the two routes must cross the tracks at grade, or perhaps under a taller bridge, we looked down every cross street for the next few miles in the hopes of reaching our preferred route. Most of the roads had clearances ranging from 12'0" to 12"8" posted right at the intersection, and we just continued on. At some point, we came across a road that was not so marked (I think it was Main Street into Angola), and we made the left.

We made it several hundred feet down that road, and around a curve, before encountering the 12'6" clearance sign, and it is always exciting on these narrow country roads, because it is quite possible to get ourselves to a point where we have no choice but to back up, so the sign necessitated quick action to find a place to turn around. I first spotted a side street going off to the right, and put my signal on, figuring that I could at least three-point it there if I had to.

No sooner had I put my right signal on than I also spotted a business on the left with a large dirt lot, and while a culvert at their entrance gave me some pause (it's hard to tell at first glance whether any given culvert will support us), the prospect of not having to back-and-fill on a busy road made the decision, and I changed from right to left turn indicators.

Just as I started the turn a horn blared, and a red SUV that was trying to overtake us across the double yellow line in the oncoming lane nearly broadsided us. Of course, nearly being in a collision sent my heart rate through the roof, but the nincompoop soccer mom in the SUV then felt the need to pull into the parking lot with me to read me the Riot Act. She kept screaming at me that changing my mind about which way to turn was "illegal." Somehow, the fact that she was the one who crossed a double-yellow to make an illegal pass never crossed her mind; never mind the fact that she was following an oversize vehicle with distant out-of-state plates past a sign clearly indicating it needed to turn around.

I'm really, really glad she did not hit us, because we would have been there for hours filling out paperwork, and collecting damages from this self-righteous idiot would have been a challenge at minimum. After listening to her rant for half a minute or so, I just closed my window and drove off, but it was a good fifteen minutes before my pulse came back down to normal.

At that point we gave up on trying to get to 5 until signage directed us that way just south of Buffalo, where it becomes the Buffalo Skyway and runs right along the lake. That put us onto US-190 across Grand Island and back across the river into Niagara Falls.

Our casino guide said to take exit 21, which corksrews onto the Robert Moses Parkway. This exit is very clearly posted "no commercial vehicles," which always gives us pause, but the directions we were following were very explicitly for RVs, so we took the exit. About 2/3 of the way around the corkscrew was where the 12'0" clearance sign was posted -- yipes! I was able to pull off into the gore point to stop and assess the situation.

There wasn't enough shoulder to safely back all the way around the corkscrew and onto the main highway safely, and there was no place to exit if I backed the other way onto the parkway, either. The I-190 overpass certainly looked pretty low, and we had no choice but to believe the sign -- I couldn't safely get close enough to measure. So we called the police for help, figuring they could at least block the ramp long enough for us to back out.

An officer from the park's police force arrived in fairly short order. He asked our height, and when I told him 13'0", he said we would make the underpass no problem. Apparently, 13'6" semi-trailers do it routinely; he just told us to stay in the left lane where the clearance was a bit higher. He did roll behind us with lights on, and, having been misinformed in the past by well-intentioned police officers, we rolled under at a dead crawl. Sure enough, we had inches to spare, and, with a quick wave to the officer, were back on our way.

We made it the rest of the way to the casino without incident. But why, oh why, could the DOT not have saved me (and I am sure others) the aggravation by posting the height restriction before the exit, when I still could have done something about it? Alternatively, they could at least have been more precise -- 13'6" is a far cry from the posted 12'0".

Today we will explore Nigara Falls by scooter before heading east along the lake towards our rally in Rochester.

Photo by TooFarNorth, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Wow! What a journey! I hate people that don't give us enough room with our large vehicles... and then it's even worse when they pull ridiculous stunts like that half-wit tried.

    Glad you made it through safely!

    Brad Jerew

  2. Oh lord how I hate East Coast roads, and East Coast drivers, and all those stupid low clearance bridges they've got out there. Agggh! I swear, I love Maine and Vermont, but if I have to put up with that kind of scene again (same thing happened to us more han once), I'm not going anywhere near there.

    Happy to hear you're OK.

  3. My twins were probably 4 and my oldest would have been about 6 when I started a game that served me well for years. We were approaching an old iron bridge across the Bow River. At the last moment I screamed "everyone duck or we'll all be killed!", scrunched down and drove under the bridge. I used that for years. At first the twins would go on and on trying to explain to me why I didn't need to duck - that was the most fun - listening to their explanations.

  4. A town I grew up in had good signage, and a crane still drove into a big bridge. It's not the quality of the signage, it's definitely the quality of the driver (and passenger!;).

    Rolling up your window was a great move, rationality and intelligence tend to piss terrible drivers off because they will never understand they were in the wrong. I'm just glad nothing happened.

  5. I'm an ex trucker and having gotten my CDL In NY I can say with some authority that a low clearance marked bridge can be up to 12" higher than the posted clearance due to (potential, and/or predicted) snow build up.

  6. The biggest problem with clearance signs is that one part of the various road department doesn't talk to the other departments. They forget to redo the clearance signs after they repave the road surface.


  7. I just went under that same bridge. My camper measures 13'7" from the top of the AC. I moved over to the same lane and made it.. Needless to say there was some of the leather from the seat I was sitting on in the shape of a small mountain :) . I hate to think how close I was and I fear if my tanks hadn't have been full we would have hit it. I never saw a sign at all..! I know it's there, I just didn't see it.

  8. Dave5Cs
    Most bridge and tunnel signs will display the lowest point not the highest. It is a DOT thing.


Share your comments on this post! We currently allow anyone to comment without registering. If you choose to use the "anonymous" option, please add your name or nickname to the bottom of your comment, within the main comment box. Getting feedback signed simply "anonymous" is kind of like having strangers shout things at us on the street: a bit disconcerting. Thanks!